Finance Minister Mathias Cormann on Wednesday dismissed calls for Jobseeker (previously Newstart) to be permanently increased beyond the initial six month period, rejecting claims the government was being “heartless”.
“The [$550 a fortnight] supplement is in place for the period of the Covid-19 crisis,” he told ABC.
“And as soon as … we’re on the other side of this period, the supplement would not continue … it is a temporary arrangement to deal with a temporary crisis.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed up Cormann’s comments later in the day saying the cost of maintaining the increased rate was not sustainable: “This was not a change in the government’s view about the broader role of the social safety net in Australia.”
The government’s comments ignore the fact that unemployed people have not seen significant increases in social security for decades. At the original $40 a day rate, they have been forced to live significantly below the poverty line, while fighting for jobs that simply do not exist.
Melissa Fisher, 38, from Adelaide, and Leon Stivey, 29, from Perth, bravely spoke to Voice of Action about their experiences on Jobseeker (their full story is below). Both reported having to limit themselves to one meal a day, skipping basic care and having to choose which bills are more important to pay.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to my health. I often go without medications and medical supplies I need,” Fisher told Voice of Action.
“I have been only eating one meal a day which is dinner. There’s been days that I haven’t eaten at all.”
Fisher, who has been on Newstart/Jobseeker for four years, has been receiving the extra $550 coronavirus supplement from this week. She described it as “life changing” as she “can finally breathe and won’t have to choose between taking care of myself or paying bills”.
She said she would finally be able to eat properly, treat her skin condition, stay on her medications, see health professionals and make more visits to see her father, who has stage four lung cancer.
“I believe reverting back after actually letting people feel what it’s like to afford what it’s like to live, instead of just surviving, is cruel,” said Fisher.
“The PM only has ever cared about the people who have money and sees the unemployed as lazy and below everyone else.”
Leon Stivey, 29, from Perth, said the temporary increase to Jobseeker was not a fix but a “short lived painkiller”, and the Prime Minister was more concerned with “lining the pockets of people and companies who have more money than they need so they can pursue a larger property portfolio and increased profits”.
“I sacrifice meals and peace of mind, having to eat one meal a day or one meal every two days and choosing which bills are more important than others,” Stivey told Voice of Action.
The government has been under significant pressure from social services advocates, Labor and Greens MPs, and even some within its own ranks, to commit to permanent increases in Jobseeker after the payment was effectively doubled to deal with the crisis.
Cormann suggested the six month period may be extended depending on conditions but rejected a permanent increase.
Independent senator Jacqui Lambie joined the campaign to retain the rate on Wednesday, saying she didn’t see the government scrapping the $550 coronavirus supplement (“would be bloody shameful and bloody heartless“), as the extra money would make a big difference in people’s lives and local economies.
Research has found the original payment is not enough to cover basic living expenses, while as many as 4 in 5 Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients are forced to skip meals to get by.
Millions of Australians will be unemployed and underemployed for a lot longer than six months, with Treasury secretary Dr Steven Kennedy telling the COVID-19 Senate committee on Tuesday not to expect the economy to snap back.
“We have never seen an economic shock of this speed, magnitude and shape, reflecting that this is both a significant supply and demand shock … Some jobs and businesses will have been lost permanently,” Kennedy said.
The committee heard that the government had only paid out $4 billion to households so far, while $6 billion had been paid out from people withdrawing their super early, indicating that most support for households has come from people eating into their retirement savings.
The government said on Wednesday that 800,000 Jobseeker claims had now been processed. The total number of people receiving the payment is not yet clear but over 720,000 people were on Newstart before the crisis.
Some 540,000 employers have formally registered for the Jobkeeper wage subsidy scheme, while 757,000 people had been approved for early access to their superannuation.
Foodbank Australia told Voice of Action this week that Australia was already in a “hunger crisis” before Covid and the bushfires. It was now facing “unprecedented” demand for food relief with over 1.2 million Australians needing help every month.
A Senate inquiry into raising the Newstart/Jobseeker rate is due to publish its report on Thursday this week after numerous delays.
Australia’s social spending of 17.8 per cent of GDP is “well into the bottom half of the world’s richer countries”, below US, UK and New Zealand, according to OECD figures cited in a recent comment piece by Dr Gaby Ramia, associate professor in public policy at The University of Sydney.
“Policy in Australia since the Howard government has only intensified the shaming of the unemployed,” he wrote.
Jeremy Poxon, spokesman for the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, said many Australians would never find a job again after the crisis due to the impact on the economy.
“I hope Morrison’s ready for riot and rebellion when he cuts Newstart,” said Poxon.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Melissa Fisher, 38, Adelaide
I was a carer for my disabled mother for 22 years from the ages of 12 to 34. She suddenly passed away and I was put on Newstart. My own health at that time also started to go downhill. I’ve been on Newstart for four years in May. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to my health. I often go without medications and medical supplies I need. I have a skin condition that require bandages and have often had to use tissues instead. I’ve had to stop and start my anti depressants There’s been times I haven’t been able to buy simple basics like shampoo. My brother has had to buy me shoes because the pair I had had holes in them. I have been only eating one meal a day which is dinner. There’s been days that I haven’t eaten at all. I haven’t been able to see specialists because I haven’t had the money and some don’t bulk bill. With the increased coronvirus supplement I’ll be able to eat properly and eat a lot more fresh fruit and vegetables. I’ll be able to stay on my medications without stopping and starting them and see medical professionals. I can finally treat my skin condition!! I feel like I can finally breathe and won’t have to choose between taking care of myself or paying bills. It’s life changing to be honest. I’ll also be able to afford to visit my dad more often he has stage four lung cancer and his time is limited. I believe reverting back to $40 a day after actually letting people feel what it’s like to afford what it’s like to live, instead of just surviving, is cruel. The PM only has ever cared about the people who have money and sees the unemployed as lazy and below everyone else. When these payments get taken away it’s going to put me and thousands of others back into poverty. Some of these people have never had to experience poverty before and I know how devastating it will be on them. Not being able to afford to live is cruel. Tax cuts do not stimulate the economy we’ve already seen this fail. Trickle up economics work better for all of us. The stimulas package proves it.
Leon Stivey, 29, Perth
I was on Centrelink relatively young, as a child of a broken family with a few issues. I was raised by a single mother with the aid of my absent father’s parents. At the age of 14 I was no longer living with my guardians and was self reliant. I moved around a lot jumping between study, work and unemployment up until i was 21. From then on it was employment or Centrelink. Mainly due to my lack of qualifications and my inability to “turn a blind eye” I struggled to find and hold employment. My most recent reasoning for requiring welfare was termination of employment in my probational period due to a complaint I made about a superior. I have received welfare on and off for approximately 14-15 years. I sacrifice meals and peace of mind, having to eat one meal a day or one meal every two days and choosing which bills are more important than others. I live alone in a family owned home where I dont have rent to pay but I have full bills (water, power, gas). My vehicle’s engine gave out whilst I was employed at my last job but I was let go not long after so I didnt have the ability to repair my vehicle and since then I have had to let the rego lapse, I had to drop my internet plans and phone plans. With the increased rate of payment I can either improve my quality of living OR pay off my debts and pay bills in advance. After the six month period I will have only been able to pay off my 5k in debts. Once it reverts I go back to relying on help from the government and family just so I can continue the cycle until I find employment. Knowing i have a 6 month break from anxiety is mildly relieving but its temporary and that’s the problem this increase is not a fix or a bandaid it’s a short lived painkiller. The Prime Minsiter has more important things than the citizens of Australia living below the poverty line, such as lining the pockets of people and companies who have more money than they need so they can pursue a larger property portfolio and increased profits. I’d have some sort of respect for the PM and what he says if he lived off the same provisions we live off.